E.C. Comics and MAD Magazine

Just to switch things up a bit, let’s talk about MAD comics, and let’s take it from the top. I’ll abbreviate the early history so you don’t get too bored. Promise.

A fellow by the name of Max Gains is credited with the first $.10 comic book, which from what I understand was simply a collection of newspaper strips that he decided to try and sell at a department store for that aforementioned price just to see if he could make a few bucks. Most were of funny animal variety, and they quickly sold out, making Gaines and his partners more than a few bucks. With this success under his belt he decided to go into the publishing business and formed E.C. (Educational Comics), which, as the company name suggests, published such titles as Picture Stories From The Bible, etc. While on vacation one year Max was killed in a speedboat accident, and Max’s wife asked their son, Bill, to take over the family business. When Bill took over the company was running in the red and he needed to do something drastic. The Bible stories, in addition to the rest of the line, were selling poorly compared to the super hero comics of the day (Batman, Superman, etc), and E.C. was in very real danger of going under.

Enter Al Feldstein (pictured right–Bill Gaines is left).

Al was a passable artist, but his real talents lay in finding talent. Such huge names as Jack Davis, Will Elder, Frank Frazetta, Graham Ingels, and Wally Wood were brought on board. Bill and Al hit it off almost immediately, discovering they shared a passion for cheesy pulp fiction of the sci-fi and horror variety. In an inspired move they dumped the entire line, blew up the business model Bill’s father had created, changed the name to “Entertaining Comics” and shocked the world. Some of the new titles they created: Tales From The Crypt, Weird Science, Vault Of Horror. They were unique in the fact that the stories were graphic and the artwork was exemplary. The covers depicted decapitations, zombies, psychopathic murderers and even an emaciated heroin addict, complete with spent syringe. This was the early 1950’s, I must add, so you can imagine the parental outrage when little Johnny brought one of these home from school. But the kids did buy them, and this switch reversed their fortunes almost immediately.

Enter Harvey Kurtzman.

Kurtzman was brought on board to create and “edit” an adventure comic called Two Fisted Tales. He quickly turned this schizophrenic title into a graphic war comic; what made TFT unique was his decision to switch the focus from the American point of view to the “enemies” point of view on occasion, and none of the stories glorified war, quite the opposite. It was all gritty realism, and his attention to detail was borderline fanatical. He even sent one of artists down in a submarine so capture this detail; the sounds as well as the aesthetics. The first was a success, so Gains gave him another to do. In those days and editor was paid by the book, so by adding a second title he effectively doubled his income. But Feldstein was more prolific and less meticulous, so he was able to crank out double the books Kurtzman could in the same amount of time. Harvey complained and Gaines offered a solution. Why not do a “quickie” funny book every couple of months, one that wouldn’t take much effort, and give him self a raise? Kurtzman agreed, and MAD was born.

MAD started out basically parodying the E.C.’s own horror line, which was fine, but it wasn’t until issue #4 that things really took off. The lead story was a parody entitled “Superduperman”, aping you-know-who, and it was an absolute smash at the newsstands. After the success of this issue nothing was sacred. Brutal parodies on such icons as Archie (where he was depicted as a chain smoking delinquent) and…shudder…Disney characters caused sales to go through the roof, making MAD E.C’s top selling comic book. After 24 issues, Harvey grew restless. But more on that in a minute.

Enter the EVIL ONE,  Dr. Fredric Wertham.

In 1954 he published a book entitled Seduction Of The Innocent, in which he evangelized on how comic books were warping the minds of our youth, turning them into murderers, rapists and homosexuals. Remind you of the PMRC and Tipper Gore’s witch-hunt on music? Anyway, this led to a federal investigation and an official hearing, and although Gaines was convincing it ultimately sounded the death knell for E.C. This hearing prompted the comic book publishers of the day to form and create the dreaded and quite silly Comics Code Authority. The CCA was so restrictive in what a comic book could and could not depict that Gaines refused to participate, and this decision caused his distributors to abandon ship. His ground breaking horror and sci-fi comics died a horrible death.

Harvey Kurtzman always wanted to do a glossy magazine, and was in talks with Hugh Hefner to do just that when he approached Gaines with the idea of turning MAD into one. Gaines agreed primarily due to the fact that, as a magazine, MAD wouldn’t have to adhere to the CCA rules and the MAD magazine as we all know it was born! Kurtzman stayed on for a few issues until he went to Gaines with a demand for majority ownership of MAD. Gaines declined, Kurtzman left and Al Feldstein (remember Al?) took over the reins. From this point the magazine grew into a monster, selling millions of copies each issue, peaking in the 70’s. And although Kurtzman was the first to use the gap-toothed little boy it was Feldstein who made the decision to make his MAD’s mascot, and with few exceptions Alfred E. Neuman has appeared on every cover since the mid 50’s.  As I mentioned Feldstein was fortuitous in his ability to recognize and recruit the best talent, and over the years he recruited the likes of Sergio Arrogones, Don Martin, Antonio Prohias (Spy Vs Spy) and Mort Drucker, to name but a few. Although not as subversive as the early MAD, Feldstein’s version continued to skewer everyone, regardless of political affiliation. It became an American icon in and of itself and the covers of the magazine are like little windows into American history.

Kurtzman would go on to influence the underground comics of the 1960’s (ZAP, created by Robert Crumb being the most famous), Monty Python (Terry Gilliam worked for Kurtzman for a spell), Sketch TV comedies such as SCTV and Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, National Lampoon, and just about every comedian or satirist of the last 50 years. MAD, as it is now, is a pale imitation of what it was, but it’s still going. It long ago lost it’s ability to shock, but still remains on the stands. The world would be a bleaker place if it wasn’t.